Washed Out

The delayed monsoon pissed down for a good 20 minutes. It was just enough rain and whipping wind to nettle the hundreds who had set aside this Wednesday night for purchases of cactus pears and chain saws. The storm sent most of them racing for their cars. Thousands of neatly lined rows of new and worn goods displayed on tables and racks were defenseless against the storm, and many items were water-damaged.

For Arizona State University photography undergrads Gregory Schaffer and Jacob Melchi, that Wednesday night at Phoenix Park 'N' Swap sucked in every way imaginable. Because of the rain, their much-labored, one-time-only photo exhibit of pictures they had taken at Park 'N' Swap over the past seven months was basically shot to shit. Many of the prints and photos were ruined and the expected turnout of fellow students and buyers was predictably next to nil.

Schaffer and Melchi's photographs are the result of a school assignment and a labor of artistic expression. The work -- black-and-white and color images and portraits ranging from the trivial to the melancholy to near-surrealist juxtapositions -- document the persons and things of Park 'N' Swap life.

The photographers' conceptions contrast each other, regardless that the shots were done on the same days at the same times. Even a cursory glance at the work reveals two polar views of Park 'N' Swap and the bigger scheme of Americana. Schaffer says that two people shooting in the same environment confuses the notion of documentary photography, that there is no right to true vision.

"It is more about how two individuals see the same place," says the soft-spoken Melchi.

The pair's Park 'N' Swap photos hung for five days in mid-September at ASU's off-campus student gallery called Step. At Step, the out-of-context photos took on an in-your-face temper that was anything but dull.

Schaffer's spare, black-and-white scenes capture well the essence of untamed children and severe-faced men, young mothers holding babies and peculiar white-faced monkeys in smocks and miniature cowboy hats. Melchi's all-color pieces objectify trinkets of jive, weathered faces and images within images mixed with underbelly swap-meet commercialism.

"He'd shoot color and I'd shoot black-and-white so that we wouldn't influence each other in styles," says the lanky, well-spoken Schaffer. "We wouldn't show each other the proof sheets."

"We revealed our pictures to each other and we see how different our pictures were," adds Melchi.

Kansas City implant Schaffer and Indiana native Melchi met in school a year ago and discovered they had similar ideas about photography and art in general. Melchi works as an in-house photographer at the Nelson Museum of Fine Arts at ASU. Schaffer says he's a "lowly photo lab aid" with some photography work under his belt. Both Schaffer and Melchi will get their BFAs from ASU in May.

They agree that Phoenix is culturally impoverished and lacks a walking area of downtown. That is why they were drawn to Park 'N' Swap and its broad, multiethnic cross section of people.

"Park 'N' Swap is not just Latinos, whites or blacks," says Schaffer, "it's everyone. It's like a temporary downtown, in a way, where all these people are shopping and buying things."

Some problems arose during their shoots. Once, three large gents cornered the duo in the parking lot, one accusing Schaffer of snapping a shot of his girlfriend's ass. Schaffer says it wasn't true, he was only trying to get a shot of the girl's shirt, which read "National Pimp Association" or something to that effect. Schaffer and Melchi played the naive stance of ASU student photographers to avoid a sure beating.

Another time a golf-cart-driving Park 'N' Swap manager was nonplussed with the boys using cameras and use of the Park 'N' Swap name without authorization. At first he appropriated a hard-ass posture and told the boys to head back to ASU and brush up on their copyright law. But he soon became a fan of the photography and later identified many of the vendors and told some of their stories.

"Basically, we gave him a set of prints and he rolled away, and that was it," says Schaffer.

Not surprisingly, many of the vendors were somewhat camera shy, oftentimes shielding their faces from the camera. Other vendors demanded guarantees that the pictures would never be published. For Melchi, the vendors' reactions were disconcerting at first.

"The first few times we started going there, I kinda felt a little scared, I guess you can say."

"We've become such an image-conscious society that people are very aware of what they look like and how they appear to others, so they don't want to have their pictures taken," adds Schaffer. ". . . it's like pointing a gun at someone. There is a fine line between documentation and exploitation. A lot of photography that is photojournalistic is pretty in-your-face. That can upset a lot of people."

Another thing the pair has in common is a mutual loathing for the Phoenix art scene. They rightly assert that unless you like Old Town Scottsdale and cowboy art, options here are few.

Schaffer says he will remain here after graduation in an effort to try to improve the city's pallid art scene.

"I think there is a lot that can be done here, and I hear a lot of people complaining about the Phoenix art scene, but I don't see enough people doing anything about it."

What would he do to inspire a change in the sameness of the Phoenix art scene?

"People need something to be excited about," he says. "I don't see that much that is worth getting excited about. Most of the established venues are fairly complacent. And I'm sure that sounds like I am really arrogant. But I think it will actually take a bit of arrogance to actually get something done around here."

The last photography show the students participated in was at Modified this summer. Schaffer's stuff was more in line with the Park 'N' Swap, but set in Tijuana, Mexico. Melchi's were portraits of people who work in fast-food drive-through windows. Their next showing will be in March next year, also at Modified.

Is the man-on-the-street style fatiguing?

"I have been doing mostly street photography in the past year, partly in response to art photographies," says Schaffer. "I really don't think it's true that street photography can't be done anymore because someone says there is nothing that can be added or said about it. There is always life on the street. It doesn't matter what the art world is like."

Schaffer and Melchi wanted their unlikely show at Park 'N' Swap to provide closure for the project. But nobody expected it to rain.

"And I see it [showing the photos at Park 'N' Swap] as a way of being honest about the project," says Melchi. "A lot of times street photography is like you go out shooting and you come back with these trophies. These pictures of these people doing crazy things. Like, 'Okay, we came and took your picture and here they are, check 'em out.' I wanted to get feedback. But the response was actually pretty minimal. And the people never really understood why we wanted to take pictures of Park 'N' Swap. I guess the rain put a kind of conclusive ending on it."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith